Not even the US government knows the US government line on Rafah

And as conflicting chatter carries on in Washington, Israel keeps on killing.

US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a press conference in Tel Aviv
US Secretary of State Antony Blinken speaks during a press conference in Tel Aviv, Israel February 7, 2024 [Mark Schiefelbein/Pool via Reuters]

In an interview on Sunday with NBC News, United States Secretary of State Antony Blinken was questioned about President Joe Biden’s recent threat to withhold offensive weaponry from Israel in the event of an all-out assault on Rafah, the city in the southern Gaza Strip where more than 1.4 Palestinians are sheltering.

When asked by the interviewer what exactly Biden’s “red line” is and “what would trigger him to say, ‘I am now withholding weapons,’” Blinken responded: “Look, we don’t talk about red lines when it comes to Israel.”

This was a curious statement, to say the least, since Biden himself has talked about red lines when it comes to Israel. During an interview with CNN last week, the president laid out the latest red line with characteristic eloquence: “I made it clear that if they [the Israelis] go into Rafah – they haven’t gone in Rafah yet – if they go into Rafah, I’m not supplying the weapons that have been used historically to deal with Rafah, to deal with the cities – that deal with that problem.”

Clear, indeed.

Clarity, it turns out, was also an ostensible aim of Blinken’s NBC intervention – and, after announcing “Let me be clear”, the secretary went on to explain that “what the president said is that if Israel goes in with a major military operation in Rafah, in that case, there are certain systems that we will not provide to Israel that would aid in – aid that effort.”

In other words, perhaps, a red line.

But while it appears that not even the US government knows what the US government line is on Rafah, officials seem fairly uniformly committed to ignoring the fact that Israel has long been conducting a “major military operation” in the city – just as it has been doing in the rest of the Gaza Strip since October 7.

After all, there’s no such thing as a selective genocide. And the idea that Rafah has somehow been spared the past seven-plus months of continuous US-backed slaughter is patently ludicrous.

Officially, the Israeli war has killed more than 35,000 Palestinians although the true death toll is without a doubt far higher given the number of corpses buried beneath rubble and otherwise disappeared. The United States’s sudden professed concern for civilians in Rafah – many of whom were forced to flee to the city from other parts of Gaza – raises the obvious question of why Palestinian civilians weren’t a red line from the get-go.

Recall that the US Congress approved $26bn in supplemental wartime aid to Israel just last month, ie more than half a year into the genocide. Of course, this money was authorised on top of the billions of dollars that the US already sends the country on an annual basis.

When on May 8 US Defense Secretary Lloyd Austin confirmed that the Biden administration had paused a shipment to Israel of 3,500 bombs due to concerns over a Rafah offensive, he took care to specify that the pause would do nothing to affect the $26bn. And a recent Department of State report paved the way for ongoing arms transfers to Israel despite finding it likely that US-supplied weapons had been used in a manner “inconsistent” with international law.

So much for red lines – or the notion that Biden is somehow being tough with Israel.

For his part, the US ambassador to Israel, Jack Lew, has stressed that only a single shipment of “one set of munitions” has been suspended and “everything else keeps flowing” – an indication, he said, that nothing has “fundamentally changed in the relationship” between the US and Israel.

Furthermore, the ambassador noted, the Israeli military has not yet commenced whatever sort of behaviour in Rafah would be required to trigger opposition from the US – which continues to insist that the Israeli operation in and around the city is of “limited” nature despite all manner of blood-drenched evidence to the contrary. The Times of Israel quotes Lew as remarking that the Rafah operation has thus far not “crossed over into the area where our disagreements lie. I’m hoping we don’t end up with real disagreements.”

But if you agree that genocide in general is fundamentally OK, what else is even left to disagree about? Now if only US officials could agree what the official policy is.

In honour of the current spectacle in Washington, the Axios news website has compiled a predictably brief “history of US presidents drawing red lines with Israel”, which lists exactly three US heads of state aside from Biden. One of these is Ronald Reagan, who in 1981 delayed two shipments of F-16 fighter jets to the Israelis – and whose own administration would become increasingly divided over its Israel policy.

The following year, after apparently interpreting mixed US signals as a green light, Israel invaded Lebanon with the help of American-made weapons, slaughtering tens of thousands of Lebanese and Palestinians. Over three days alone in September 1982, the Israeli military supervised the Sabra and Shatila massacre of up to several thousand civilians and refugees outside the Lebanese capital, Beirut.

What was that about “drawing red lines”?

Fast forward more than four decades, and the US-Israeli relationship remains as special as ever – even as contradictory rhetoric continues to spew from the US political establishment. Ultimately, all the confusion over whether there’s a red line in Rafah serves to distract from the reality that the US remains fully on board with genocide, notwithstanding intermittent noises about reigning in Israeli excesses.

Meanwhile, the illusion that there has been some sort of meaningful falling-out between the US and its Israeli partner in crime is bolstered by right-wing suggestions in both countries that Biden and Hamas are hopelessly in love with each other – which merely does the disservice of making Biden & Co seem slightly less genocidal.

And as conflicting chatter carries on in Washington, Israel keeps on killing.

The views expressed in this article are the author’s own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera’s editorial stance.